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CEE Professor Joshua Fu Helps NASA Scientists Measure Arctic Gas Pollution

Joshua FuCEE Professor Joshua Fu is an atmospheric modeler whose research has helped advance the understanding of Arctic gas flaring pollution and climate. A new NASA study shows that the flaring of waste natural gas from industrial oil fields in the Northern Hemisphere is a potential source of significant amounts of nitrogen dioxide and black carbon to the Arctic.

Black carbon, also known as soot, is of interest in the climate change puzzle because it absorbs sunlight while aloft, which heats the air. Additionally, when it lands on the Arctic’s pristine snow it settles and warms the snow causing it to melt. Even relatively small amounts of black carbon make a big difference in the pristine environment of the Arctic.

The modeling community uses emissions inventories reported by governments as a starting point, but Fu pointed out to the researchers of this study that these are generally inaccurate. Measurements have shown that the government inventories don’t include all of the sources or underestimations of black carbon that end up in the Arctic, and gas flares in countries near the Arctic comprise the likely missing source.

To achieve a more accurate picture of the gas flares near the Arctic, researchers used night lights satellite data from NASA-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Department of Defense Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite over four known oil extraction sites and were able to pinpoint the solar flares by excluding light produced from electricity in nearby towns and roads.

When Fu added the gas flare locations into a model, the team could reproduce the amount of black carbon over the Arctic region that the measurements from ground stations and aircraft said should be there. This research is a good demonstration of how satellite data and modeling are especially useful when combined together.

“There are uncertainties in applying emission factors,” said Fu. “Modeling results have shown the role of black carbon in Arctic region and caused ice melting should be further studied.”  He also pointed out other sources other than gas flaring such as ship and port emissions are necessary to estimate.